Get the Most Out of Your Phone Screen Interview Questions

By Robert Half June 3, 2019 at 6:00am

When you're hiring, you can spend a lot of time interviewing job candidates who don't quite meet your needs before you find one who does. One way to speed up your search is to use the tried-and-true phone interview. The answers to key phone interview questions can allow you to pare down your list and quickly identify the most promising candidates.

What is a phone screen interview? It’s a brief call, typically 30 minutes or less, that can save you the time and trouble involved with meeting job candidates in person who, despite strong resumes, likely don't have what it takes to succeed in your open role. The process is straightforward: Once you've finished reviewing resumes and narrowed the applicant pool for your job opening, schedule each of those candidates for this first interview in the hiring process.

A job candidate’s answers to phone interview questions can tell you a lot about whether they have the right mix of skills and experience for the position and a work style that suits your office. Plus, a relatively casual phone call can give you a better idea of the candidate's interpersonal skills than a formal, rehearsed interview would.

Rather than asking open-ended or in-depth questions, consider the following categories of queries for each applicant.

1. The basics

Keep it simple and start with phone interview questions that verify information.

  • Can you describe your background?
  • Why are you looking for a new job?
  • Where are you in your job search process?
  • When could you start working?

TIP: Keep your focus. Make sure you block noise and distractions from your office during phone interviews.

2. Salary expectations

This is an important question to ask early because it sheds light on the candidate’s expectations and whether they are making more than what you expect to offer.

  • What is your salary at your current job?
  • How much would you like to earn in this position?
  • Are there specific benefits that are important to you?
  • Would it be a deal breaker for you if we don’t offer _____ benefit?

TIP: If you can’t get a clear idea of whether there’s a financial fit, you can revisit the topic of salary later.

3. Desire for the job

Evaluate their work style and interest in this job, along with their motivation for leaving their last one.

  • What reasons do you have for leaving your most recent job?
  • What attracted you to apply for this position?
  • Describe your current job responsibilities.
  • What motivates you in a job?
  • Do you have specific questions about this role?

TIP: Ask follow-up questions if you need clarification, but keep in mind this is an introductory interview and you should get through each question fairly quickly.

4. Knowledge of the company

These give you a clue about whether the interviewee took the time to do some company research.

  • What attracted you to our organization?
  • What do you know about our products or services?
  • Do you use our products or services?
  • What size firms have you worked in (small, medium, large), and do you have a preference?

TIP: Keep notes so you can compare their answers with those of other candidates.

5. Issues with the resume

Be sure to raise any concerns or red flags that came up when you read the job candidate's resume and cover letter.

  • What skills have you recently gained or strengthened?
  • How are your skills a match for this job?
  • What did you do during the yearlong gap in your employment? (If they have an employment gap.)
  • Did your internship at _____ give you specific experience to apply to this job? (If they’re a recent college graduate.)

TIP: Listen for tone and evaluate communication skills.

Planning the phone screening interview

You may choose to plan for shorter or longer calls, but many employers find that it typically takes 15 to 30 minutes to ask all pertinent phone interview questions. Make a list of your questions and be consistent with what you ask each candidate so you make fair comparisons.

Be willing to offer phone interviews outside of normal business hours for the job candidate’s convenience, particularly if they’re a currently employed passive job seeker.

Prepare to closely listen for critical thinking, soft skills and fit with your company culture. Listen for negative attitude, low energy, lack of preparedness and discrepancies between what they say and what’s in their resume.

Many of the same interview tips for face-to-face meetings can be used for phone interviews. But, in general, you’ll have fewer phone interview questions to ask and save more in-depth questions for the in-person interview, when you have more time to spend with the candidate and can use body language to help interpret and evaluate their responses.

Here are some bonus phone interview questions to ask, in case you’d like more examples:

  • What is a typical day like at your current job?
  • How do you see yourself contributing in this position?
  • What would you hope to get out of this job?
  • Where do you see yourself in five years?
  • What questions do you have for me?

Practice good etiquette during the phone interview — and keep in mind the candidate is also evaluating you. When you conduct a bunch of phone interviews in a row, it’s easy to race through the questions you ask each person. However, it’s important to sound fully engaged in every conversation. Remember to sell your company when you discuss your organizational culture, and also respect the interviewee’s time by keeping to the schedule.

Phone interview red flags

During the interview, it’s important to listen for warning signs that the candidate may not be an ideal match for your company. Here are some potential red flags:

  • A lack of enthusiasm — Does the candidate seem excited about the prospect of working at your firm, or do they seem like they’re simply going through the motions during the interview?
  • No questions — If the interviewee doesn’t have any questions for you about the team, job or company when asked, it could be a sign that they aren’t very interested in the job.
  • Sounding distracted during the interview — If the candidate sounds as though they’re browsing Instagram or otherwise multitasking while speaking to you, it likely means they aren’t focused on the interview or getting the job.
  • Negative comments about former employers — It’s never a good sign when an interviewee badmouths a current or former employer. It can mean they take no responsibility for their own part in workplace dynamics and lack professionalism.
  • A focus on money — Repeatedly returning to the topic of salary or benefits in the phone interview, before a candidate makes it to the next round, can be a sign they’re primarily focused on money and perks — not the job and company.
  • Cursing — It’s not that cursing never happens in the workplace (it really depends on the company culture), but no one should use foul language during an interview. It’s unprofessional and makes you wonder if the person would do the same thing when presenting to management or clients.

Following up on the phone call

If the candidate's answers to your phone interview questions don't satisfy you, you've saved yourself the time involved in interviewing them in person.

If the first impression goes well, however, you can move on to the next stage, where you can ask tougher questions, such as: Tell me about a time you failed at something, or What do you expect from a supervisor?

Using phone interview questions to narrow the job candidate field can be an important part of an effective evaluation process. With a little planning, you can save yourself a lot of time and be that much closer to a successful hire.

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